Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Since 2007, Jaakko Eino Kalevi has been putting out a steady stream of self-produced albums through labels like Helsinki’s Helmi Levyt and his own JEKS Viihde imprint. Despite the scrappy production values, these records showed an adventurous talent willing to try his hand a variety of styles – electro pop, nu disco, stripped back dance punk, grunge-jazz – and remake them in his own image.
In recent years, however, the Finnish musician has solidified a style of psychedelic pop songwriting that’s rich in instrumentation and luscious in texture. First came the ‘Dreamzone’ EP for Domino subsidiary Weird World, taking on the sort of soft focus dream pop that its title might suggest, then the ‘Yin Yang Theatre’ EP for Beats in Space, which explored dance rhythms and dub basslines. His latest, self-titled album ‘Jaakko Eino Kalevi’ unites these two styles, where the dextrous grooves of Say make sense alongside the wonderful, proggish album closer Ikuinen Purkautumaton Jännite. Most of the album was recorded at home – Jaakko’s never felt entirely comfortable in studios – although mixing was undertaken by Jaakko and Nicolas Vernhes in Brooklyn. “Studios are all so different,” Jaakko says, meeting on a blistering summer’s morning in London, “If you work with a person whose tastes you trust and the interior is nice, it can be nice. But I feel more comfortable recording with myself.”
Jaakko first started playing guitar at 11 years old, receiving an acoustic guitar for his birthday that year and an electric guitar for Christmas. Lessons came from an Iron Maiden-loving neighbour, and soon Jaakko ended up forming bands with his friends – some of whom still play in Jaakko’s live band today. Of course, the music that they played (progressive metal, obviously) is very different to what Jaakko makes today. “I was into Dream Theater,” he says, “At the time, they were very popular in my village – but not many girls were into it.”
Jaakko’s parents weren’t particularly musical – he says that his mother’s favourite singer was Reijo Taipale, a popular Finnish schlager singer – but they were always supportive of his music, even when he decided to leave Helsinki (and his job as one of the city’s tram drivers) to move to Berlin. Instead, he inherited some of his tastes from his siblings. “I got into a lot of new music from my sister,” he says, “Reggae, hip hop… She was quite into nu metal at some point.”
Another more audible influence on Jaakko’s recent output is dance music: a song like Deeper Shadows is a natural continuation of the lithe rhythms heard on his ‘Ying Yang Theatre’ EP. In fact, it took Jaakko a while to come round to it. “I used to kind of hate dance music,” Jaakko says, “When I started to play guitar, I was very disappointed when I heard that Guns ‘N’ Roses used synthesizers when they played live.” A turning point came when he discovered Op:l Bastards, a Finnish electro band formed by Timo Kaukolampi from the ashes of his previous group, Larry & the Lefthanded. (Today, Timo is a friend – Jaakko even recorded parts of his album in Timo’s studio.)
Although Finland has its own little-known history of techno, Jaakko’s involvement in the scene was never straightforward. When he moved to Helsinki, he attended and played live at some of the city’s parties, but he mostly played the hip hop beats he was producing on Fruity Loops at the time. It took him a while to start using his voice. “It was nice to use the human voice,” he says, “It was a little more…” He struggles for a translation. “Reachable?” The first vocal tracks Jaakko released had no real words at all, just sounds, but eventually he started to work in basic phrasing, like on the light-hearted Popcorn Party.
Despite the work put into those past albums, the press release for ‘Jaakko Eino Kalevi’ describes the album as a break from the past and should be considered his true debut. So is it the case that it’s the start of something new for Jaakko, or is it just a marketing line? “For most people, it’s my debut,” Jaakko says, “But I think it’s my fourth. The first albums I made are more like compilations of songs, but this one is more tied together. It has the same vibe all through the record, like it’s from one session.”
Perhaps the more important factor is not what Jaakko is releasing, but who hears it – and where. Jaakko insists European audiences have been more open to embrace his music than those in his native Finland, although they’re beginning to come around to it. “In Finland, they’re just starting to know me,” he says, “I’ve been doing music for a long time and playing a lot. But I can’t say I’m popular at all there.”
Weird World released 'Jaakko Eino Kalevi' on June 15th 2015 (buy).